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09 Sep 2015
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Brought back from the brink: Lessons in how to rebuild an agency

Closure was on the cards for an independent agency in Cheam, Surrey, until its staff rescued it from the brink with the help of Advantage Managed Services. Katherine Lawrey visits Village Travel, which is thriving under its new owners

Village-Travel Cheam

You’re in the middle of the busy January peaks – and your boss suddenly pulls the plug on your shop. What do you do? Pack up and look for jobs elsewhere? Or club together with your colleagues and save the business?

 

Jennie Watson, Dave Smith and Tara Munson faced this dilemma in January 2013 when Ambassador Travel went into liquidation. It was a chain of six agencies and they worked in the Cheam branch.

 

“The owner of Ambassador Travel tried to get too big too quick,” says Smith. “We always knew it was a viable business worth saving.” “We were incredibly busy that January when they told us,” adds Watson.

 

They all had the same idea that they could take over the business together, with the help of Advantage Managed Service (AMS), explains Munson, and they contributed around £1,500 each. There’s a fourth partner – Clare King – who has since moved to Spain, but has retained her financial interest in the business.

 

“AMS was a natural route to go down in the limited time we had to act,” adds Smith.

 

Village life

 

Two and a half years later their business is going from strength to strength, showing 20% annual growth in revenue and in the past six months, 25% growth.

 

Despite taking on the extra responsibility, Watson reveals there are no sleepless nights: “When we have the good months, we stash money away to cover the slower months.”

 

The agency, which they renamed Village Travel, occupies a prime spot on a crossroads in the centre of Cheam, a prosperous suburban “village” on a commuter route into London. It’s a high street that worships at the altar of independence, with locally-run bakeries, florists and gift shops in the mix. They put their growth down to word of mouth, and membership of the Cheam Village Chamber of Trade also helps with referrals.

 

They consider their main competition to be the internet. Nearby Sutton has multiples, but no other independent agents. “In the future we think city breaks will go. It’s so easy to book a low-cost carrier and a hotel online and it is harder with the younger age group, who have grown up with computers,” admits Watson. “But there are certain things you can’t do online, such as multi-destination flights and bespoke honeymoons.”

 

The store has a clean, homely design. There’s a row of three desks, and comfy leather chairs for customers. A Union Jack clock, black and white London prints and certificates of charity endeavours give it a personalised feel, and a brochure rack takes up most of the far wall.

 

“We make sure all destinations are covered,” says Munson. “Customers are drawn to the brochure rack when they come in.”

 

“We’d never get rid of it,” adds Watson. “We know some are going down that route, but our customers still like to have a brochure rather than sit on the computer.”

 

An equal partnership

 

The team dynamic is based on mutual respect and recognition of each other’s strengths. Smith and Watson work full-time, and Munson and fourth staff member Debbie Daws are part-time.

 

“We’re all pretty easygoing and know what works for the business,” says Watson. “Dave owned an agency, which he sold to Ambassador Travel, so he’s a bit better on finance, and I always do the window displays. There are parts we all play.”

 

“It’s a real achievement that the business keeps growing,” says Smith. “And I wasn’t so happy being a manager [and working for someone else] so it’s brilliant to be a director again.”

 

“Poor Dave, we probably drive him insane,” jokes Munson, referring to the female bias. “But we are all genuinely friends,” she adds.

 

They say they couldn’t have done it without AMS, which deals with all the payments and back-office administration.

 

“I’d definitely recommend AMS,” says Smith. “It’s a minimal set-up fee, all licenses and fees are covered and you have their back-up if there are any problems. We don’t have to worry about payment of bills and operators. If you’ve done your business plan, you can’t really get into financial trouble with AMS, as they won’t pay the operator until you’ve had the clients money. All our clients’ money is kept a proper bonded account, so it’s secure for everyone.”

 

Marketing strategies

 

To talk to regular clients, they send out personalised newsletters, while they use AMS for door drop campaigns. “They produce a good quality leaflet, which is economical for us,” explains Watson.

 

Coffee mornings are a regular contact point with clients – the Village Travel team treat it as an open morning and invite suppliers to attend: “It’s nice to get clients to come here and it keeps the overheads down,” says Smith. “If you hire somewhere, you never know how many will turn up. And if the supplier is here all morning, the customer can drop in as convenient.”

 

A decision they took independently of AMS was the website, as they reasoned they could do it cheaper. “It’s still a work in progress but we can make it more personalised if we do it ourselves,” explains Watson.

 

They are active on Facebook and Twitter. “We post offers on Facebook, pictures from fam trips and window displays. We get a fair bit of interaction – people tend to comment more on the personal stuff,” she adds.

 

The personal touch

 

The key to Village Travel’s success is keeping that personal touch in a fast-moving, technologically-driven world. During my couple of hours in the agency a steady trickle of customers come in. They are all regular clients and they come in to discuss ideas and share their news.

 

One of these regularly flies to the US to visit her brother, who is suffering from the early stages of dementia. “She comes in and talks to me about her brother’s move into an assisted home,” explains Watson. “She likes someone to talk to, and with her concerns about her brother’s health, she doesn’t need to be worrying about travel arrangements too.”

 

They tell me about another customer, a “young-at-heart seventy-something” man who likes to attend holiday shows after which he does a spreadsheet of potential tours, with pros and cons for each. “He likes to do the legwork,” says Munson, “But he also likes to meet the people he’s giving his money to. He lives just around the corner, and he comes in after every trip to tell us all about it.”

 

The scaremongering tactics of the national media don’t make life easy, but it does give the team an opportunity to show their experience. After the Tunisia massacre, they were visited by a panicked client who was heading to Turkey: “She was really affected by what she’d seen on the TV and in the newspapers, and she didn’t want to go anymore. She wanted us to guarantee she wouldn’t be shot on the beach!” says Watson. “Of course we couldn’t but you have to put these things in perspective – she ended up having a fantastic holiday.”

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